Friday, February 18, 2005

Divine Acquiescence

I received this in an email from a friend of mine who I had trusted (perhaps foolishly) enough to reveal my secret. We had discussed the issue in great detail, but since she had never even thought critically about anything before, I easily trounced her arguments and she couldn’t help but feeling as if I was being contrary just because I like being that way. But anyway, take a look:

"i was sitting in my Rabbi’s class, and we were discusing proofs of god. so someone said the torah was revealed to many. i asked but how could you take it as fact that the torah was really given by a divine being- that isnt a proof. his answer was something new to me, he pointed out that the torah has many different things in it that were new to everyone. However, we dont find opposition to the bible. we dont find documents from that time period that openly disagree with the torah, as is found with many new books written by rabbis, like rambams works and other rabbis. the torah was universally accepted by the jews. therefore, it must be from someone divine, in order for it to be passed down wihtout opposition. ( no one wrote anything to disagree with the fact that it was insane, a bible with all these new concepts, all these stricked laws during the time period.. you do see this with philosophy and science that people during the era didnt accept the findings) this was something i never thought of, it is very interesting. i DO NOT waant to hear your arguments. i just wanted to share this with you."

The first thing that struck me was the "i DO NOT waant to hear your arguments" part. While I respected her wishes and didn’t argue with her, I still gave her a piece of my mind about how unfair that is and how that’s nothing more than preaching and extremely rude.

She didn’t understand, so I gave her a comparison of a Christian coming over to her and saying "I spoke to my Pastor today and he said that you can only get saved if you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior. But I don’t want to hear your arguments, just sharing the good news."

She was noncommital and continued to contend that she would not have been insulted if that happened. I, however, severely doubt that, but her naivete is sometimes surprisingly pronounced and so I let her go at that. She says that since I am always being contrary for contrary’s sake, that I would be bound to find a "loophole" in the argument and strip her of it.

Of course, it’s always me finding a "loophole." Impossible to consider the possibility that the arguments are actually flawed, right?

But, anyway, now to rebut her (or her rabbi’s) argument. No loopholes necessary. She says that the laws and rules in the Torah were new to the people. But along with how I discussed the fall of the Kuzari argument in a past blog, many of the laws were not new. They had been practiced since time immemorial. The Torah gave reason behind them for which the people had forgotten or did not wish to know. Israelites didn’t want to know the pagan roots of the lulav shaking, so they found a new reason to do so.

This is also, by the way, exactly the type of reason for which precipitated the writing of Megilat Esther. See here:

"Gaster concludes that the story of Esther is not a historical fact and that the reason for associating it with the feast of Purim could have been that the details of the feast were conveniently explained. He points out that the original form of that feast had these components: the selection of a new queen, corresponding to the selection of Esther; the parade of a commoner qua king, corresponding to the parade of Mordecai in the streets of Shushan (Esther 6:11); a fast, corresponding to Esther's fast (4:15-16); the execution of a felon, corresponding to the hanging of Haman (Esther 7:10, 9:25); and the distribution of gifts (Esther 9:22). Furthermore, that festival must have taken place around the time of the vernal equinox, for it is then that Purim occurs.

"All of these aforementioned conditions are satisfied if one assumes that the festival of Purim dates back to an earlier pagan new year festival. Indeed, at new year it is customary in many parts of the world to appoint a new ruler in order to symbolize the renewal of communal life. Likewise, the installation of a commoner as temporary ruler between the end of one year and the commencement of another was quite commonplace. The Babylonian new year was also known to feature a type of scapegoat ritual whereby a condemned criminal was led through the streets in a processional. Finally, there indeed was a custom of distributing gifts at the new year, as there is today on Purim."

So, indeed, we would hardly expect people to speak out against many of the "new" laws in the Torah since they were already doing them.

Next she talks about how today we find no documents from that time period which were written against the Torah. First thing we must ask is, what time period is that? From the time of Moses in the 14th or 13th centuries BCE? If that’s the case then it has already been shown conclusively that the Torah could not have been written by Moses or at that time long ago. (Remember Ur of the Chaldeans? There are many more besides.) If it hadn’t been written, we could scarcely expect to find documents arguing against it.

So, we’re now going to go a few centuries forward, it doesn’t really matter when. Anytime between the 10th to 6th centuries BCE I guess. In that time period, religion wasn’t debated in the Near East the way it is today or even during the Middle Ages. Indeed, religion in the period was rather flexible. Take what we see in Tanach, large segments of the Israelite population and even kings of Israel and Judah were constantly serving other gods in the neighborhood. Baal, Molech, Dagan, etc. So the assertion that "the torah was universally accepted by the jews" is clearly false.

People at that time didn’t write scholarly objections to the religion, they didn’t even think about it all that much. If they saw something about another religion that they liked or thought might work to help them, many of them went out and tried it. It was only the few firm Henotheists/Monotheists who are represented as the Prophets in Tanach who tried in vain to reign in the wanderings of the gullible superstitious Israelite masses.

Now, suppose that there were some individuals who went against the grain of their culture and were actually critical thinkers and were skeptical in the true sense of the religion or Torah. Most of the people at the time were illiterate! So how could they write anything against the religion if writing was beyond them. It was mostly the priests who knew the art of writing - and they could scarcely gain by undermining the faith of the masses. Also, this illiteracy itself is another reason for why skepticism was virtually absent. If people cannot read things for themselves, they are at the mercy of what the priests tell them the scriptures say. Difficult to build skepticism under those conditions.

Now, let’s give the proposition even more juice. Suppose some tracts were actually written against the divine notion of the Torah. These texts would never be popular among the regular population and especially not so among the literate priestly classes. We have lost famous texts that were wildly popular from antiquity, how can we have even the slightest hope of recovering the few unpopular copies of these tracts across the centuries? We can’t even find documents or artifacts of any type to confirm the existence of King Solomon and his Temple. It is truly beyond any sort of reason to suppose we’ll find these hypothetical skeptical documents from so long ago.

I have deconstructed the argument given to me. As I have shown it makes a number of assumptions that are not supported by evidence or basic knowledge of history. I think its biggest problem is essentially that it confuses the world of today with the way it was millennia ago. People are quick to debunk all sorts of things today in our age of information, not so was it back then. People were hardly even capable of doing so so long ago. The world is a very different place.
How’s that for a loophole?

9 comments:

Ben Sorer Moreh said...

OP, a few add'l thoughts

- define "universal"

- define "accept." Does it mean serious, unreserved, critical acceptance in the face of other options, acceptance to a limited degree or just a nod and a "whatever?"

- define "Jews." The ones we're aware of today or the ones who we no longer count because they didn't "accept" the Torah?

- assume the Torah was "universally accepted by the Jews." What percentage of the entire human universe did/do the Jews comprise? A far greater number of people "accepted" the Torah, with the "value added" that God had a baby and the rules needed to be changed. A far greater number of people have accepted "Bhagavad Gita." We Jews have clearly missed some important memos.

- Assume the Jews really did universally accept the Torah 2-3,000 years ago. How much similarity does it have to the "Torah" of today? "Everyone" agreed not to cook a goat in its mother's milk, but no rabbis needed to be consulted if the milk spoon was accidentally used to stir the beef stew (wait, there were no "milk" or "meat" dishes.) People made a "good faith effort" to rinse blood from their meat, (sort of the way greens were handled before "bodek" came to town.) A woman who completed menstruating would "wash herself in water" (she's an adult and the details are up to her,) and go on with her life that evening. When Shabbat came, they closed down their business and carried their kids and their picnics on their backs, regardless of the status of the vine strung around the village and what the rabbis had to say about said vine (wait, there was no vine.)

Ben, shlit"a

Alex said...

"Take what we see in Tanach, large segments of the Israelite population and even kings of Israel and Judah were constantly serving other gods in the neighborhood. Baal, Molech, Dagan, etc. So the assertion that "the torah was universally accepted by the jews" is clearly false."

Just as there are those who reject the Torah yet still follow some of it (like you), there are others who accept the Torah yet still reject some of it (such as those who were enamored of the Baal). So, your final statement is not a knock-down winner.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I highly doubt that the Torah was in the form we are familar with at the time of such idolatry, but even without taking that into account, such behavior certainly gives us good reason to doubt that it was universally accepted.

Why should we think it was?

Alex said...

"such behavior certainly gives us good reason to doubt that it was universally accepted."

I'd say that it merely gives us good reason to think that the Jews at that time were human beings with human failings. People don't always follow what they believe. Take you for instance.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

You're stretching it. People like me are rare. And you certainly are not justified in making the assumption that all the Israelite idolaters were like that.

Alex said...

Would say that a large percentage of Orthodox Jews today speak occasional, or more-than-occasional lashon hara? How about the percentage of those who put ritual over ethics? Judging from your website, I'd say you would. Back then, the drive for idolatry was big, like lashon hara and ritualism is now.
Now am I stretching it?

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

Idolatry is a fundamental denial of YHVH's power. It's not just about "being bad" but clear evidence of unbelief in the Torah's theology.

If this is an acceptance of the Torah then "acceptance" loses all meaning.

Alex said...

Now I'm kinda wishing that you'd answer Ben Sorer's question about how you define "acceptance" and those other words. I'd agree with this final posting of yours if I agreed with your definitions. Also, I might prefer you say "much of its meaning" instead of "all meaning."

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Accept" means to acknowledge as true.

"Universal" means "all."

"Jews" are the Israelites who recognized themselves as such.